Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Duncan Skiles
Writer: Christopher Ford
Producer: Andrew Kortschak, Cory Ryder, Walter Kortschak, Christopher Ford, Duncan Skiles
Stars: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Plummer, Samantha Mathis, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, Madisen Beaty
A teenage Boy Scout raised in a small Christian community comes to suspect his father could be a notorious serial killer.
I wasn’t particularly excited going into “The Clovehitch Killer.” The Los Angeles Film Festival screening guide summarized it by saying, “a teenage boy starts to suspect that his wholesome, all-American dad is actually the serial killer terrorizing their small town.”
Déjà vu was a deterrent, as I’d seen several coming-of-age stories tucked inside this setup before, most recently in “Summer of 84” (review here). Not only that, thrillers based on an “is he or isn’t he?” premise generally have a hard time sustaining suspense because “he” always turns out to be the person that the Boy Who Cried Wolf suspected he was in the first place.
To the relieved reversal of my erroneous presumptions, “The Clovehitch Killer” doesn’t present itself as a predictable “true identity” mystery. The truth about Don Burnside, a family man and scoutmaster active in his Christian community, is only temporarily teased as a question with two possible answers. Consequently, 16-year-old Tyler’s arc of discovery isn’t really about finding out whether his father is or isn’t the elusive killer called ‘Clovehitch.’ The film’s emotional center instead themes itself around forcing your head to accept an uncomfortable fact your heart unfortunately already knows.
Screenwriter Christopher Ford never attempts to hide that “The Clovehitch Killer” is based on the real-life case of Dennis ‘BTK’ Rader, right down to giving Don a goatee and glasses. Dylan McDermott sells the seemingly average man’s sweet side with a touch too much cinematic schmaltz. Maybe McDermott means for his smile to appear overeager when he presents a soda to his son as “our little secret.” A scene of mom, dad, and little sister singing and dancing while doing dishes has less of an excuse for applying sentimentality so thickly.
But when Don turns dark, McDermott takes his persona to chilling places that the actor has seldom explored before. Tension still refrains from tying too tightly. By design, “The Clovehitch Killer” doesn’t hit quite the same wavelength as say David Fincher’s “Zodiac” as far as skin-crawlingly realistic creepiness is concerned. Yet the film is consistently eerie in the psychological implications of its most naked moments, such as whenever an anchored camera starkly captures true terror hidden inside outwardly unassuming suburban homes.
Although the movie models itself on true events, it isn’t overly concerned with the crimes, and is only peripherally interested in the killer. Just as Stephen King’s “A Good Marriage” takes a look at BTK from the vantage point of a wife that popular opinion believes should have sensed something, “The Clovehitch Killer” dissects a similar situation from the perspective of a suspected murderer’s child.
“The Clovehitch Killer” is Tyler’s personal tale of growing through a cracked shell of innocence. Serial killer stories rarely peer through such a lens, making this movie a fascinating look inside the aftershocks of horrible actions on an indirect victim. Scenes unsettle due to how close they come to reflecting awful realities. “The Clovehitch Killer” becomes less focused on fictionalized shocks like a traditional thriller, and more interested in instilling dreadful atmospheric sadness along the lines of “My Friend Dahmer” (review here).
Alleviating concerns of having too straight of a story, “The Clovehitch Killer” includes a memorable moment that isn’t a twist so much as an unexpected revelation cleverly concealed by a timeline trick. The technique works wonderfully to steal a viewer’s breath without warning. The film then dares to return to this well a second time. By then, the narrative takes a mild hit of momentary confusion it doesn’t necessarily benefit from just to construct its juxtaposed conclusion.
Other missteps and misdirects, such as a shoehorned kiss between Tyler and his companion, or Don tipping the audience to his bloodhound sense by trailing the teens too early, trip up “The Clovehitch Killer’s” rhythm whenever it tries following too closely to typical movie formula. When that rhythm refocuses on what truly makes the movie’s heart beat, namely Tyler’s tragic self-reflection, “The Clovehitch Killer” creates an atypical serial killer thriller with intangibly haunting consequences for its characters and audience alike.
Review Score: 80